How far has society really moved over the past century?

The thought occurred after recently reading the book the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Written around 1910, it tells the story of a group of construction workers, struggling to survive.

The constant battle, with the bosses holding the upper hand, is vividly illustrated.

The job was hard but dismissal plunged families further into debt and destitution. There was no safety net.

The workers have constant debates about their lot, with the skilled worker and socialist Frank Owen pointing out how the workers collude in the creation of their own situation by doing nothing to change it.

The arguments that poverty is caused by migrant workers, automation or terms of trade go back and forth during the lunchtimes.

What is striking are the parallels with today. The debate about the poverty of those in work, paid hardly enough to survive. The sack means destitution.

It would be wrong to exactly parallel a situation of a century ago with today but in many ways things do seem to be heading back in that direction.

There was no such thing as a pension in the early 20th century. Pensions arrived in 1911. The weekend and paid holidays in the terms of today did not exist. Nor did the health service and welfare state. All of these things and more came about over the following century, as a result of the struggle of people.

The trade unions played a huge role in achieving workplace justice. Workers coming together in a collective organisation could assert power and get change. The individual worker could not be picked off.

The Labour Party became an agent of social change.

Much has been achieved. The danger is taking all of these gains for granted, thinking they can never be taken away.

These basic rights can easily be removed, as the country moves back toward a time of servitude. Poverty being dealt with via charity, rather than justice.

Today, the UK is the fifth biggest economy in the world, yet millions struggle to feed and keep themselves and their children warm. It is a national disgrace.

The move to turn back the clock must be resisted. Collective organisation via trade unions, community groups and political parties all have roles to play. There needs to be a fairer settlement for all in this country, based on justice, not charity.

  • Paul Donovan is a Redbridge Labour councillor for Wanstead village and blogger. See